Hell Raiser, Star Chaser, Trail Blazer
A John Constantine Run
by Travis Hedge Coke
The 2015-2016 Constantine: The Hellblazer, written by Ming Doyle and James Tynion IV, drawn, inked, and colored by divers hands, was a thankless task, bringing John Constantine closer in tone to what people remembered his first ongoing being like, what folks wanted it to have been, and keeping enough of the recent revisions, such as bringing his age down by a few decades, to keep things media sexy and adaptable for tv, cartoons, movies, and probably action figures and maquettes.
One of the things the series did best, largely thanks to, I assume, Vanesa Del Rey, Riley Rossmo, and the unfortunately underrated artist and writer, Ming Doyle, was to flip the switch hard up and down and up and down on John’s sexiness and his sexuality. John’s sex appeal has always been a vaunted thing, but often played as near inexplicable or a bit of a cheat. “I’m shagging a lesbian, do I win a prize?” was a brief meme. His bisexuality was either offhand comments, a sort of more than brotherly interest in some men, and being attractive as anything and willing to use it in a con.
This new take let John be attractive, but it also loosened up the hard man shield that had kind of crusted over him, especially in the run just previous and some superhero books where he was posing macho and firing off bolts of energy like a drunk raver with cannons for hands. John is not really sexy when he’s a macho hard case. John is attractive when he’s just about to fall on his face but has, as of yet, not hit the ground with his nose.
John kneels a lot in this comic. The series had John knotting his tie all the way up, again, his collars stiff, his body a bit cheap glass – breakable, affordable, sharp. He’s a glam little fucker. He is femme up the James Dean levels. He has an actual bulge in his pants. He is naked except for blood, white socks, and a scared look on the first page, standing in a clothing shop telling a woman it is not what it looks like while the title tells us the story is called, Going Down. The series gave John a new haircut, pitched him back to constantly flirty, and also let him just have sex.
See, John is sexy and has sex and such, but it is almost inexplicably arranged into monogamous relationships or half-comic bits with prostitutes. He nets a fantastic boyfriend for the majority of this run, but the story opens with him having simple, stupid sex.
Stupid sex is more humanizing and, more importantly, it is sexier than “I’m shagging a lesbian,” and asking what you win now. Sex with a lesbian is called sex, John. You didn’t invent anything.
That, too, is the beauty of this thirteen issue story: you can see the arc of his fall. This is pratfall terror. He looks pretty while falling, he looks like someone you could hold up if you caught him right, but he is going to hit the floor and he will probably take you down, too, even if he does not want to.
The run is a seduction not only of his boyfriend, but the reader. We are taken in.
We see, here, a parodic name, a name applied to bad media-sensitive takes, transfigured into John’s near opposite, yet still the same animal, the Heckblazer, Georgiana Snow. Georgiana is everything some fans vocally feared and everything some of them would not say, but they still do. She is precious, and proper, scholarly and cooperative, behaved and maybe subservient to the systems at hand, and she is a woman and she is black. She even carries a pistol or two on a cover. John and she have a real fuck you assessment, between them, and Georgiana is both as sexually complex as John and as determined to smash her face on the floor in her own time, in her own fashion. John and Georgiana are two trajectories going to the same place.
I cannot stress the power of drawing John with his crotch riding tight and his necktie done proper and businesslike. Tight jeans, and ducking his head down when he smiles.
Traditionally, John’s musical tastes arrested around the time he stopped being a working musician, so late Seventies punk, a strong soft spot for the Pogues that comes with being written by Garth Ennis for awhile, but here he has the same Black Canary album that is actively advertised on the sidewalks and in storefronts, so he is up on the new stuff.
The closest we got to this kind of energy with John, post revision, was a writer from his old, long-term series, the loved one, writing him an on-panel sex scene in a superhero comic, but that was fingertip sex because you cannot just have sex. Here, the sex is sex. Not that fingertip sex is not, but here you could not argue it and he gets to use the word.
The boyfriend is massive. You could climb him. This is by design.
This is a thought out comic. They were doomed to some level of failure. There was no chance of this pleasing everyone, or even everyone vocal about it. They could not have made a more tightly and smartly constructed comic, though, aiming for their aims.
Shirtless John drawn into a notebook by a girlfriend now dead and betrayed, underneath the blue ink him, a line from a real life Johnny Thunders song. Johnny Thunders took his name and his hair from comics, and more specifically, comics about magic. Thunders had a voice his own and words his own and he was a hard deal and was dealt a hard deal, and he died bad. He died in a very bad way.
Other early strong images include Blythe, a demon who John has sex with at a party and then betrays, lying on their back, cradling a burning picture of our guy, wearing nothing but garters and a kind of pulpy boa resting between their held up and spread legs. The swears being starred out. Consistently. The floors and streets always being drawn in, in detail. The taxidermied mouse with the smoking pipe.
It would be a disservice to talk of the comic in either past or present tense at all times. Created in the past, for a now passed audience (we still live, we’re just not the use we were), the comics remain in at least digital distribution, and they are alive in print artifacts even when they do not print and bind more of them. Comics become immortal history.
John Constantine, an excuse for Steve Bisette and John Totleben facilitated by writer, Alan Moore, to draw Sting into more 1985 Swamp Thing issues. A vehicle for political horror and hippie dark satire by Jamie Delano and a range of artists, in his solo series, Hellblazer, three years after. An immortal history. But, unlike Wolverine or Dick Tracy, John used to age almost in real time, having birthdays pretty yearly, having a timeline, and then they shuffled things internally at the publisher, and he got young again, then he got here, in this middle ground, this thin soft, soft space.
There is a scene in an early issue of an even younger John, flashback to school-age John soon to screw over his friends and destroy lives, but not having done it to them yet, dancing with boys, dancing with girls, shirtless in a jean jacket, bloody lip from the guy he let beat him as a facade to stealing his concert tickets, using one thing to get another just as he dances with one person to flirt with the other. The comic is a flirt. It was then. Is now.
There’s a man on the street, while John is very drunk, who asks, “Was she swallowed whole by the in-between of being?”
John gives him one answer, which is brusque and partial. Another is delivered to us via mock cut/up typewritten text, spread in little slips of paper over a tabletop scene of coffee, empty bottles, a gutted lizard, smashed cigarette butts and broken tiles. John is one answer and another. An apsidal precession betwixt women and men
A hellblazer is not a thing, any more than a heckblazer is. The comic, in the mid-1980s, would have been titled Hellraiser, except there was a horror film of that name on the horizon. There is an early 1970s Sweet song, Hellraiser, that could completely be about John, if John was a she, which she is if you look right. I will say that here and let anyone who thinks I am impugning John’s masculinity come at me. John has always done best, as a character, when working with men who are getting over the bull of traditional masculinities, and women who are what we socially would call masculine. The Hawksian woman, if you want to be cinema-academic with it. Strong women, otherwise. Take less shit women. But, John, male pronouns and penis and golden boy gone bad status, is also a take less shit woman. “A lady for the ladies, a lad for the lads,” a mechanic I once worked with, used to describe his youth. It is like that, if only in narrative and social anticipations.
These are not gender nor sex, but gendered expectorating. Not quite expectation, but held in the mouth until not. Gendered narrative movements, gendered narrative markers. What is gender, after all, but a spirograph of anticipatory strictures?
The comic, the comics-existence and publishing history, this series, this run are between-things, wholly swallowable if you wanted. “Knowledge,” the comic says, “cannot be retroactively applied.” But, looking from out here, it can.
Pretty Girls Make Graves is an issue title, and do we want to talk about how betrayed Smiths fans must feel, yet fall and feel again, again?
Pretty Girls Make Graves is an issue title, and does not John make graves? Is not John death and burial? Hypotrochoid in all things? That issue opens with him thrown back in a classically feminine pulp art pose, and an opening scene with a girlfriend, an ex girlfriend, long dead and horrible, with a dozen or twenty phalluses, pink and bright jabby tentacles shooting around our man, grabbing, slick and stiff. The sex and role anxieties masking want, hate, or unsurety. Mistaking the robust for the healthy leads to this. Like the best of John Constantine, unsubtle until you try to grasp hold. Rigid flesh and tumescence pouring like warm water through the breaks in your fingers.